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Former Honduran President, Accused of Drug Crimes, Awaits Next Step


FILE - Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez answers questions from the media, Aug. 13, 2019, in Washington.

Behind bars and waiting for trial, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was arrested this week at his home in Palmas de San Ignacio following an extradition request from the United States. It was the latest twist in his case, which follows his departure from power just more than two weeks ago.

Hernandez's future is now in the hands of the Honduran Supreme Court, which must decide whether to approve the U.S. extradition request, his lawyers said. The court on Tuesday appointed Judge Edwin Francisco Ortez to review the extradition file presented by the United States.

Ortez ordered the arrest of the former president the same day.

Hernández, who was recently added to a list of corrupt actors, faces charges of drug trafficking, use of weapons for drug trafficking and conspiracy to use weapons in drug trafficking, The Associated Press reported, citing Honduran Security Minister Ramón Sabillón.

The United States accused Hernández of involvement in a "violent drug trafficking conspiracy to receive shipments of multiple tons of cocaine sent to Honduras from Colombia and Venezuela," the U.S. Embassy said in a diplomatic letter to the Honduran government, leaked to local media.

The former president received "millions of dollars in bribes and profits from multiple (drug trafficking) organizations" based in Honduras, Mexico and other countries, according to the U.S. letter, published by the newspaper La Prensa.

Hernandez’s brother, former legislator Tony Hernández, was sentenced to life in prison in the United States in March 2021 on cocaine trafficking and firearms charges.

The former president, who governed the Central American country for eight years, left office Jan. 27, when President Xiomara Castro de Zelaya was sworn in.

The Castro government celebrated Hernández's arrest as "a success" and "a historic event," Sabillón said, according to Reuters.

In announcing in inclusion of Hernández on the list of corrupt actors, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged that the former president committed or facilitated "corruption and drug trafficking practices" and used "profits from illicit activities to facilitate political campaigns.”

FILE - In this March 16, 2017, photo, Juan Antonio 'Tony' Hernandez, brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez, arrives for a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
FILE - In this March 16, 2017, photo, Juan Antonio 'Tony' Hernandez, brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez, arrives for a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Hernández has denied the accusations, describing them as a "false narrative."

Hernandez belongs to Honduras’ National Party, which continues to back the former president.

“We sympathize with the personal situation of the former president of the Republic of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado, a beloved leader within our Political Institution,” the party said in a statement.

Hernandez's lawyers said the former president intends to "follow the corresponding legal process and defend his innocence," according to a statement.

In addition to the case against his brother, the former president was also implicated at the trials of Geovanny Fuentes and Devis Rivera, former leaders of the Los Cachiros cartel, which trafficked drugs to the United States. The U.S. departments of Justice and State declined to comment on Hernandez's case, in separate emails to VOA.

The next step is for Judge Ortez to review the U.S. extradition request.

Federico Álvarez, a lawyer and political analyst, told VOA the Honduran court "so far has ruled in favor" of previous U.S. extradition requests.

The only exception, he said, would be if Hernandez was already facing trial in Honduras, in which case that would take precedence. For now, there is no such process, he said.

Days after President Castro took office, Hernández was sworn in as Honduras’ representative to the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), which includes Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Panama.

In the past, Central American political figures have claimed immunity from extradition as members of Parlacen. In the most recent case, the two children of former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli tried to claim immunity at a Guatemalan court, but the argument was rejected, and the brothers were extradited to the United States.

Before his arrest, Hernández said in an audio message released on his Twitter account that he is "ready to collaborate" with the justice system in his country.

During the sentencing of Hernandez's brother, U.S. prosecutors argued that the former president played a significant role in a "violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy."

David Weinstein, an attorney and former Miami-Dade County federal prosecutor in the U.S. state of Florida, told VOA, “The DEA and the Department of Justice appear to be quite confident in the amount of evidence there is to support the accusations they make.”

According to Weinstein, "it appears there is enough evidence" for the Justice Department to move forward with a case against Hernandez.

If the extradition is approved, Hernández will be transferred to the custody of federal authorities in New York. The charges against him, although not yet officially filed by the Justice Department, are in the Southern District of New York’s federal court, according to the leaked U.S. Embassy letter.

If found guilty, Hernandez faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, Weinstein told VOA.

Tony Hernández, the former president’s brother, was convicted of trafficking at least 185,000 kilograms of cocaine to the United States. At sentencing, prosecutors said that between 2004 and 2019 he paid "millions of dollars" in bribes derived from drug trafficking to the former president. The bribes, according to prosecutors, fueled the former president's political campaigns in 2009, when he aspired to be reelected as a deputy to the National Congress.

In 2013, Tony Hernandez procured $1 million in bribes from former Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, which went to Juan Orlando Hernández. The bribes helped to create impunity for Tony Hernandez protégés and to make Honduras one of the most important transit points for drugs into the U.S. and a "decrepit narco-state," the New York prosecutors said.

U.S. legislators had increased pressure in recent weeks to bring Hernández to account before the U.S justice system. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, asked the Biden administration "to ensure that Hernández is held accountable for his actions." Representative Norma Torres, a California Democrat, did the same.

Hernández defended himself by directly quoting Torres and Menéndez on Twitter, saying that Hondurans accused of drug trafficking in the U.S are giving “false testimonies, waiting for their sentences to be reduced and taking revenge on those who persecuted them.”

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